Marriage, Family, and the Limits of Career Ambitions

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A friend recently sent me a link to a Modern Love column in The New York Times entitled “Is the Husband Going to be a Problem?” The column was written by a successful professor about the pitfalls of attempting to navigate careers in academia. The author and her husband, both Ph.D.s in the humanities, had started out their careers in the Midwest and along the East Coast. They were fortunate to both find tenure-track positions. Then, even more fortunate when several years later, the author was able to find another position a mere ten miles from her husband. Books, babies, dogs, and a mortgage later, her husband failed to get tenure, thus ending his career in academia. The story has a (sort of) upbeat ending, since not getting tenure turned out to be the freeing experience her husband needed to embark upon a new career in finance. In between the lines, however, the article provides glimpses of a long distance relationship, endless striving, and finally, the utter exhaustion of going down this path. Is this really the only happy outcome – compromise, disillusionment, and finally fulfillment in spurning academia?

I had started out graduate school living in a dormitory hallway of ten women, in a broad spectrum of fields from engineering, chemistry, to history. Most of us were single. It was a fun and exciting time, which seems even more idyllic now in retrospect. Seven years later, many of us remain good friends, but a dwindling number have stayed on the academic track. The challenges of juxtaposing “publish or perish” with the desire for a family tipped the balance for several friends, who opted for working in industry or consulting. Those remaining are either single or facing difficult decisions and / or the prospect of long distance relationships.

A great deal of online debate over the future of higher education has focused on the tenure question. A recent, ill-conceived Slate.com article even compared giving faculty tenure to granting restaurant workers permanent employment. The comparison was intended to demonstrate the absurdity of tenure. Higher education in the United States, and particularly the humanities, faces plenty of problems, as a number of the blog entries on this site have discussed. As many of comments to the Slate article point out, however, tenure has become the red-herring of the debate. Our society has changed drastically within one generation. In some ways, these changes are awe-inspiring. Many of top graduate programs had not even accepted women until the 1970s. Yet, the basic outlines of an academic career has remained unchanged, and ill adapted to double-career partnerships. The problem is not isolated to academia. I have heard similar complaints from doctors, lawyers, and other professionals in careers designed for a time when the spouse, usually a stay-at-home wife, would have taken care of the kids and home. Stories abound of women doctors who NEED to get married and have a baby in the one year gap between residency and fellowship, the lawyers and bankers who realize in their late 30s that in their devotion to career advancement they had perhaps missed the opportunity to have a family.

Is there a solution? I think a good starting point would be a legally mandated, gender-blind maternity leave. The costs of child care should be more equitably distributed so that women do not carry a disproportionately large share of the burden on their careers. The policy seems to be working in Sweden. Institutional restructuring always lags behind social change. In time, perhaps naively, I still believe that it is possible to “have it all.” Ask me again in ten years.

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2 Responses to “Marriage, Family, and the Limits of Career Ambitions”

  1. Jana Says:

    I would welcome better maternity leave schedules and more opportunities for family-friendly work environments. I belong to several online political-action groups that lobby for such changes (like MomsRising) and encourage those who care about these issues to become more involved.

  2. Shellen Says:

    That’s really great. I think we need to be more vocal about these issues as affecting everyone, and not just women.

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